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“Paul, An Apostle of Jesus Christ”

Paul began his epistles in a manner that was common in his day. The typical introduction to first century letters consisted of three parts: the name of the writer, the identity of the recipients, and a greeting.

In most of his letters, the first thing Paul would do would be to identify himself as an apostle and state the source of his apostleship. In this article, we will consider exactly what Paul was saying about himself when he claimed to be an apostle of Jesus Christ, why he had the right to make this claim, and what the claim says about the letters that he wrote.

An Apostle

The word apostle simply means “one sent forth.” More specifically, an apostle is one sent with a special message or commission. While the word “apostle” could properly apply to any person sent forth on any mission, we understand that the Bible primarily uses this term to refer to those men who Christ chose to bear witness of Him to the world.

Christ’s apostles had a specific mission, or work, to accomplish. First, He commissioned them to spread the gospel into the world (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16). Second, they were to bear witness of Christ and His resurrection to the world (Acts 1:8; 2:32). Finally, the apostles were instrumental in the establishment of the church. Jesus built His church (Matthew 16:18), but each apostle played an important role in its construction. The moment that they are saved, Christians enter a spiritual structure (the church), which is being built upon “the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:19-22).

To enable them to do this important work, the apostles received a special measure of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit guided them into all truth, revealed the things given by Christ, and reminded them of the things He had taught them (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:12-14). This particular promise of the Holy Spirit was made to only the apostles. No one else received this measure of the Holy Spirit.

The apostles also received authority to execute the Lord’s will and testament. After Peter made the good confession (“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”), Jesus told him, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:16; 18-19). Lest we think that Peter was the only apostle given this privilege, Jesus later made the same promise to all twelve (Matthew 18:18).

Possessing “keys” or “binding and loosing” is acting with authority. One who has a key to a door has power over when that door opens or shuts. As they preached, the apostles were making known the blessings and stipulations of the Lord’s will, thus “unlocking” the door of Christ’s kingdom to all of mankind. No one else received this authority.

In addition, the apostles were also ambassadors for Christ. “Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). An ambassador is a representative, one who speaks on another’s behalf.

“An ambassador acts and speaks not only on behalf of but also in the place of the sovereign from whom he has received his commission. It is his duty to proclaim faithfully and precisely the message entrusted to him by his sovereign. Accordingly there is a real sense in which the voice of the ambassador may be said to be the voice of the sovereign he represents” (Philip E. Hughes, Commentary on Second Corinthians, pp. 209-210).

The apostles were Christ’s ambassadors, authorized and empowered to speak and act on His behalf. When an apostle spoke, it was as if Christ Himself were speaking. No one else has the right to be considered an ambassador for Christ.

Paul’s Claim to Being an Apostle

Because of his effectiveness as an apostle and evangelist, Paul’s work was opposed by Satan. Judaizing teachers were often all-too-ready tools for Satan to use in his efforts to frustrate Paul and destroy his efforts. These false brethren would follow Paul, entering into an area after he had left, and undermining his efforts by binding circumcision and the Law of Moses upon Gentile converts (Acts 15:1). One tactic used by these Judaizers to influence those whom Paul had taught was to deny that he was an apostle. Because of these lies, Paul had to spend time defending his apostleship. Much of the book of Galatians deals with this matter, as does the entire book of Second Corinthians.

It is clear from reading these epistles that Paul did not enjoy defending his apostleship. He did not do so in an effort to vindicate himself. He defended his apostleship because any attempt to undermine his authority as an apostle could destroy his labor in the gospel.

Paul’s divine calling as an apostle is emphasized in his introduction to the book of Galatians: “Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead)” (1:1). From this statement, we see that Paul did not attain his position as an apostle through personal aspiration or usurpation. He was not made an apostle by the means of men; nor did any man seek him out to be an apostle. Paul became an apostle through the calling and will of God Himself.

Paul was not one of the original twelve apostles. While they were busy preaching Christ, he was opposing their efforts. Paul referred to his late calling and conversion as being “born out of due time” (1 Corinthians 15:8). The Lord called Paul when He appeared to him on the road to Damascus.

15 So I said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.

16 But rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you.

17 I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you,

18 to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.”

Acts 26:15-18

Although “born out of due time,” Paul did not consider himself to be inferior in authority or power to any of the other apostles (2 Corinthians 11:5).

There is no doubt that Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ. The New Testament reveals the fact that he bore the characteristics of an apostle.

1. Paul saw the risen Lord. As the eleven apostles were securing a replacement for Judas Iscariot, Peter indicated that this was a qualification. “Therefore, of these men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us, one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22). The book of Acts satisfies this requirement on Paul’s behalf by recording in three different places the fact that Paul saw the risen Lord on the road to Damascus (Acts 9, 22, 26). Paul also indicated that he had seen the risen Lord (1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:8).

2. Paul was taught by the Lord. Just as the twelve apostles spent three years learning from the Lord, so also Paul received his knowledge of the gospel from the Lord Himself. “But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11-12).

3. Paul possessed a power held only by an apostle. The Scriptures reveal that the apostles alone had the power to give others the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. “And when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money, saying, ‘Give me this power also, that anyone on whom I lay hands may receive the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 8:18-19). Paul claimed to have this power (Romans 1:11) and apparently had used it on Timothy (2 Timothy 1:6).

4. Paul did the work of an apostle. Paul rebuked the Corinthians for allowing others to deny his apostleship. They had seen his power and authority firsthand, and they should have come to his defense when false teachers came into their midst and denied that he was an apostle. “I have become a fool in boasting; you have compelled me. For I ought to have been commended by you; for in nothing was I behind the most eminent apostles, though I am nothing. Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds” (2 Corinthians 12:11-12). In an earlier epistle, Paul had told the Corinthians that they were the proof of his work as an apostle and the seal of his apostleship (1 Corinthians 9:1-2). A church existed in Corinth because an apostle had come into their midst and preached to them.

5. Paul possessed the humility of an apostle. Although the apostles possessed great power and authority, the Lord taught them to be humble. They were to be as “harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Even though they were doing a great work, and would reign with Christ in His kingdom, they were to consider themselves as “unprofitable servants” (Luke 17:10). Paul was humble in his dealings as an apostle. He reminded the Thessalonians, “Nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, when we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:6-7). Even when Paul had to talk about his qualifications and defend his apostleship, he did so reluctantly. He called it “foolish boasting,” and even reverted to speaking of himself in the third person (2 Corinthians 11:16-21; 12:1-6).

6. The other apostles accepted Paul’s apostleship. While some may have denied that Paul was a genuine apostle because he was not one of the original twelve, the twelve themselves accepted his apostleship and gave him the right hand of fellowship. “But on the contrary, when they saw that the gospel for the uncircumcised had been committed to me, as the gospel for the circumcised was to Peter (for He who worked effectively in Peter for the apostleship to the circumcised also worked effectively in me toward the Gentiles), and when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (Galatians 2:7-9). According to the apostle Peter, Paul’s writings are Scripture and must be accepted as having equal weight with the rest of Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16).

One cannot be an apostle of Jesus Christ if he does not meet these qualifications. Many people today claim to be apostles, but we must reject their claims. There is no indication in the New Testament that the apostolic office or authority was transferable to others. When the apostle John died, the office of an apostle ceased to exist. No man living today can claim to be an apostle, because no man today has seen or been taught by the risen Lord. No one today possesses the miraculous power held by the apostles. Those who claim to be modern-day apostles are liars (Revelation 2:2), and those who are Christ’s true followers must reject them. However, there can be no doubt that Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ. The New Testament goes to great lengths to verify his claim to be “an apostle of Jesus Christ.”

Letters Written by the Apostle Paul

While apostolic authority could not be conferred upon other individuals, this authority did extend beyond the men themselves. For instance, an apostle’s authority was not limited to those whom he had personally converted or local churches that he had personally established. All Christians and all churches had to respect the authority of all the apostles. The apostles were not acting on their own; they were working together to carry out Christ’s will.

One way in which an apostle could exercise or extend his authority was by writing an epistle. When Paul began his epistles by identifying himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ, he was not trying to impress the readers with a personal title or office that he held; he was saying something about the nature of his letter. A letter from an apostle was not the same as a letter from a friend or mentor. The apostles were ambassadors, or representatives, of Jesus Christ; and they spoke by His authority. Thus, when one received a letter from an apostle, it was as if he had received it from Christ Himself.

When Paul introduced himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ, he was setting the stage for everything else that would follow in his letter. By introducing himself as an apostle, Paul would thrust the authority of Christ to the forefront of his epistles, thus calling upon the reader to consider everything that followed as the doctrine and commands of Christ (1 Corinthians 14:37).

It is the authority possessed by the apostles that upholds the continued use of their writings as Scripture today. The epistles are not “love letters” sent to the first century churches. They are not to be dismissed as “someone else’s mail.” They are authoritative documents, written by the ambassadors of Christ, which set forth the doctrine and pattern for us to follow today.

When we read the epistles written by Paul, we must acknowledge them as being written by the authority of Christ and containing His commandments. To despise and reject the New Testament epistles is to reject the authority of the apostles, and rejecting the apostles is rejecting the Lord who sent them (Luke 10:16).